Katmai Peninsula – Kuliak Bay
Our group was finally complete by early afternoon, so after lunch we set off for our next destination, Kuliak Bay. Unlike Kukak, which is very large and open, with the river opening up right into the bay, Kuliak is smaller with high walls, and to reach the river we had to climb a small rise and walk through some tall grasses.
By the time we arrived at Kuliak it was late afternoon, and we ended up taking an early dinner before landing. A mistake, since the light was dropping fast by the time we landed, and with the structure of the bay, the sun was already behind the mountains. Nonetheless, we saw some great bear behaviour whilst we were watching.
This was the most bears we’ve seen together so far, with a lot of action. One bear proved to be a very cautious fisher, and we all sat, fingers glued to the shutter for what seemed like forever, barely settled, and very uncomfortable, whilst she stared intently at the fish, but making no move. Eventually she moved on, and just as we decided to start moving upriver, our attention was grabbed by some growling downstream, which was the precursor to the arrival of a mother with a yearling.
The mother proved to be a great fisher. The cub rather less so, although he (she?) applied himself to the game with great enthusiasm. Each time his mother caught a fish, he’d rush over and start growling until he managed to snag a piece from her.
The mother and cub slowly moved up to the waterfall further up stream, and we moved along behind. What followed was a game of bear politics, with more dominant bears pushing out the smaller bears. A younger bear turned up, turning over rocks looking for leftovers. She was pushed away by a bigger male, and walked right past us, 5 metres away at most. This may have been our closest encounter yet, but the bear was clearly the more nervous, keeping an anxious eye on us as she passed.
The next morning saw us back at the waterfall, waiting for the light to reach over the mountains. We had a long wait before we saw any action, but finally the bears turned up in their numbers. First one of the lone bears we’d seen yesterday, then a second lone bear, and then most excitingly of all, a mother with two spring cubs.
The two cubs were clearly a little nervous about the path they had to take down through the fall, jumping from stone to stone. Like the mother we saw yesterday, this one was a good fisher too, and the cubs enjoyed some treats on the way down. After entertaining us for a few minutes, the mother brought her cubs along the beach, right in front us, perhaps 3m away. With a fixed length 300mm lens in hand, and sitting check-to-jowl between the rocks, it was almost impossible to photograph, but watching those cubs walk right by was a magical moment.
After a while we switched positions with the other group and went to sit on the opposite side of the river. With hip waders on, crossing the river doesn’t pose any difficulties, and with the water being very clear, it was easy to see where you were putting your feet.
We were lucky with our new position, there was plenty of bear action in the river, with a couple bears snorkeling – walking with their heads underwater to look for fish. We saw a couple catches just in front of us, and the water made a lovely back drop for the photographs, much easier to work with then the waterfall, where both the shadow and the stones made exposure difficult. One of the stars of this afternoon’s show was a young bear, perhaps alone for the first time, who had the look of a gangly adolescent.
One problem we ran into at both spots near the waterfall was that another photographer had set up a couple of remote controlled cameras, one in the river and another in the waterfall. A couple of the best moments I shot were marred by the presence of the cameras right in front of the action.
We had one more visit to the river after our lunch break, and picked a new spot further down the river where the salmon were very active. It was a beautiful spot, the light was fantastic, the only thing we were missing were the bears! Eventually, a long bear turned up and caught one salmon after the next, amidst much splashing amongst the seagulls. Once the sun went down behind the mountains it was time to head back to the Kittiwake and set sail for our next destination, Geographic Harbour.